British soldiers re-trace routes of death marches

The British soldiers arrived at the last POWs Camp in Kundasang carrying 10 kilogrammes of rice each on their shoulder.

RANAU: Lieutenant Harry Hyslop thought that after five months of strenuous training, he would be ready for one of the biggest challenges he had ever embarked on.

Although the 23-year-old British soldier knew he was in for a surprise, Hyslop was very much determined to pursue this lifetime opportunity.

Just a few months back, he found out about the Sandakan-Ranau Death Marches.

“I knew that British soldiers served in Myanmar and Vietnam, but not in Borneo. What was more intriguing was the death marches involved Australian and British soldiers. I have never heard of that part of the history until recently,” he said.

And when he heard about a selection process to pick British soldiers to embark on the first ever journey to re-trace the routes of the death marches, it did not take him long to sign up for the challenge.

At least 40 soldiers signed up for the challenge, but after thorough screening, the number was reduced to 14. Hyslop was among the lucky ones.

“It was a challenging experience one could ever feel throughout the march, but it was also equally fascinating. It was fantastic.

“I have always like challenges, it is for physical development. When I learned about the death marches, I was very much intrigued. The more we talked about it, the more I wanted to do it (the walk).

“In a way, I believe it is a way for me to show tribute to the fallen heroes. It is a historical moment that should be re-liven,” he said when met at the Kundasang War Memorial yesterday.

Although he was happy to be able to complete the challenging walk, Hyslop admitted: “I do not think I would have survived if I had walked the walk about six decades ago.”

The Sandakan-Ranau Death Marches were a series of forced marches in Borneo which resulted in the deaths of over 3,600 Indonesian civilian slave labourers and 2,400 allied prisoners of war held captive by the Japanese during World war II at prison camps in North Borneo (now Sabah).

By the end of the war, of all the prisoners who had been incarcerated at Sandakan and Ranau, only six Australians survived, all of whom had escaped.

It is widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during the Second World War.

The idea to re-trace the routes was mooted by retired Major John Tulloch of the Royal Regiment of Artillery in England.

“I was visiting Sandakan in 1999 and made a shocking discovery. Of the 641 British soldiers who served here, 400 were from our regiment. So I thought to myself, something must be done to honour them.

“And so I set my course, met up with some expatriates and locals who introduced me to the right group of people. They gave me the encouragement and told me that it can be done,” he said.

Tulloch spoke to several others who shared his passion, and he was more determined than ever to make his dream a reality.

Well like any beautiful stories, Tulloch’s determination and passion pushed through. Fast forward several years later, and after getting the green lights from the relevant authorities, he managed to inspire enough people to re-trace the death marches routes. And as the saying goes, the rest is history.

For the 65-year-old, what was more interesting was the involvement of the Sixth Malaysian Royal Regiment which also sent 15 soldiers to accompany the Britons in their journey.

“We have the memorial service to honour the dead on August 27 annually, but I felt there was something lacking. So by having the walk to re-trace the death marches routes which ends with the memorial service, it would bring a lot of difference, it is like the pinnacle on top of everything,” he said.

Tulloch understands the challenges one has to endure when trekking through the thick jungles.

“I know the jungle very well but that does not mean I lived in the jungles. I grew up in Penang and as a child, I used to run in the hutan (jungle) a lot, as oppose to doing homework … that was my early exposure to jungle life, an early jungle training.”

Having served in Vietnam in 1968, Tulloch was very much exposed to living in the jungle, where he learned the art of survical.

And with his vast experience, it was a surprise for him to share his passion and skills by becoming an instructor at the Jungle Warfare School in Brunei for the last 17 years.

“One must be mentally, physically and emotionally prepared because the jungle life is very much challenging. This programme is not exactly a re-enactment of the death march because at some point, the soldiers cycled, but still it was not an easy task, especially with them having to adapt to the weather here,” he said.

Meanwhile, Major Claire Curry who led the team, comprising three women and 11 men aged between 20 and 54, disclosed that their screening programme was carried out in March this year.

“After months of training back home, we flew to Brunei to equip ourselves with survival techniques when in the jungle and also to familiarise ourselves with the climate here,” she said.

Arriving in Sabah on August 3, the team made their way to Sandakan for a memorial service before embarking on the 164-mile walk.

“It was so challenging. The weather, the jungles, the tracks, going up and down the hills, the leeches … we are just lucky that we had enough food and proper shoes. It must have been hard for the soldiers then.

Challenges aside, Curry felt equally happy, thanks to the support from the locals.

“People we met along the way have been very supporting, they cheered and waved at us. That was a great boost for us to complete the challenge,” she said.

She said starting their eight-hour walk as early as 7am was a real challenge.

“One of the team members was hit with heat exhaustion, he was nearly hospitalised but determination to complete the journey pulled him through the whole thing. That was really something.”

Asked if she would ever do it again, Curry replied: “It would be a privilege to lead another group, but it is hard. However, give me a year, who knows I might just do it again. Having said that, if our act today could inspire others to do the same, that would really be a bonus.”

Personally, he said it was an emotional journey.

“Especially the last leg where we we were walking down the hill to this last camp. I could feel my tears trickling down. Human spirit is amazing, the will to survive, it was very emotional and I am very privileged to be part of this,” she said.

In 1942 and 1943, Indonesian civilians imported from Java, along with Australian and British POWs who had been captured at the Battle of Singapore in February 1942, were shipped to North Borneo to construct a military airstrip and POW camp in Sandakan.

Many perished and the remaining prisoners’ conditions deteriorated, especially with the often beatings, little food and medical attention.

Due to a combination of a lack of food and brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese, there were only 38 prisoners left alive at Ranau by the end of July. All were too unwell and weak to do any work, and it was ordered that any remaining survivors should be shot.

They were killed by the guards during August, possibly up to 12 days after the end of the war on August 14.

In total, only six Australian servicemen managed to escape. During the second marches, gunner Owen Campbell and bombardier Richard Braithwaite managed to escape into the jungle, where they were assisted by locals and eventually rescued by Allied units.

During July, private Nelson Short, warrant officer William Sticpewich, private Keith Botterill and lance bombardier William Moxham managed to escape from Ranau and were also helped by the local people who fed them and hid them from the Japanese until the end of the war.

A war memorial and gardens of remembrance were later built in Kundasang in 1962 to commemorate those who had died at Sandakan and Ranau.

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